A Week of Inspiring Jazz Concerts in San Diego

Last week proved  extraordinary for experiencing jazz in San Diego’s premier classical music venues. On Wednesday, the La Jolla Music Society presented its Jazz Mini-Festival of Piano All-Stars at the Conrad Prebys Performing Arts Center in honor of Jazz Appreciation Month.  On Thursday, Camarada’s Mingle @ Mingei series presented Superstition—The Music of Stevie Wonder with a jazz septet headed by Peter Sprague.

Melonie Grinnell [photo courtesy of the artist]

This baker’s dozen of jazz artists would sit at the top of any local jazz aficionado’s who’s-who list of San Diego jazz royalty. The Music Society’s pianists boasted the iconic Mike Wofford, Padres’ resident organist Bobby Cressey, Grossmont College director of piano studies Melonie Grinnell, and the doyenne of Leonard Patton’s Jazz Lounge Kat Shoemaker. Each pianist was assisted by bassist Justin Grinnell and percussionist Julien Cantelm, two-thirds of the Danny Green Trio. That trio’s third member, however, held forth at the piano on Camarada’s Stevie Wonder program the following night at the Mingei International Museum in Balboa Park.

Melonie Grinnell opened the Jazz mini-Festival at The Conrad, and her set included a sophisticated, richly textured account of Jerome Kern’s standard from the Great American Songbook “All the Things That You Are.” Bobby Cressey’s upbeat set included several of his own intrepid compositions, including “Master of Whispers,” as well as a pensive but elegantly turned out “But Beautiful” by Jimmy Van Heusen.

Mike Wofford [photo (c.) Beth Ross Buckley

After treating the audience to some classic Fats Waller, Kat Shoemaker crafted her sumptuous take on Chick Correa’s 1973 gem “Crystal Silence,” followed by Joe Henderson’s “Out of the Night.” Mike Wofford brought the program to a confident close with solo piano excursions that revealed his signature style, concise—almost minimalist—but telling distillations of melody and harmony whose inventive edge never ceases to rivet the listener.

The La Jolla Music Society’s Director of Learning and Engagement Allison Boles graciously hosted the program held in its comfortable, more intimate hall The JAI.

At the Mingei, Camarada’s tight jazz ensemble opened with Stevie Wonder’s “As If You Read My Mind,” a driving ballad powered by Duncan Moore’s keen, insistent percussion and Allison Adams Tucker’s joyfully assertive account of the lyrics. Guest flutist Steve Kujala’s athletic riffs and spirited duets with flutist Beth Ross Buckley added significantly to the excitement of this account, as did Danny Green’s volleys across the keyboard. Sprague and Kujala opened  “I Wish” with an enticing duo of angular themes before the ensemble joined in this Wonder gem from 1976 that won him a Grammy Award. “Sir Duke,” Wonder’s tribute to Duke Ellington, opened with Mackenzie Leighton’s explosive, bravura solo on acoustic bass followed by Danny Green’s exhilarating expansion of Wonder’s probing themes. Without so much as a pause, the ensemble slid into Peter Sprague’s own be-bop tune “Etude Z,” uniting several generations of sophisticated inspiration in a single take.

(l. to r.) Allison Adams Tucker, Danny Green, Peter Sprague, Steve Kujala, Duncan Moore, Beth Ross Buckley & Mackenzie Leighton [photo courtesy of Camarada]

Allison Adams Tucker struck a more confessional, personal perspective with Wonder’s “I Believe When I Fall in Love,” giving gentle, persuasive shape to this heartfelt ballad.  With similar conviction, Tucker took the more decisive “Do I Do,” and, aided by Sprague’s spirited extensions and Green’s powerful chords from the piano’s depths, she soared to joyous ecstasy.

Naming the show Superstition, of course, required a compelling rendition of Wonder’s 1973 chart-topping song. Camarada gave Superstition a preachy yet jubilant account, highlighted by Moore’s bravura, inventive percussion solo. For its encore, Camarada played Carole King’s “So Far Away.”

Heads up: the La Jolla Music Society will present the Melonie Grinnell Trio on May 24, 2024, at 4:30 p.m. in a free outdoor jazz concert in The Conrad’s Wun Tsai Courtyard.

The ‘Jazz Piano All-Stars’ concert was presented in The Jai at La Jolla’s Conrad Prebys Performing Arts Center on April 17, 2024. Camarada’s ‘Superstition’ was presented at Balboa Park’s Mingei International Museum on April 18, 2024.

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